The Highlands Bluebirds boys basketball team (20-10 overall) came into the 36th District semifinals as the second seed favored to win over the host and third seed Newport Central Catholic Thoroughbreds (9-19). But the Thoroughbreds played like anything but a team that came into the game on a 10-game losing streak on their home floor. They gave an expected battle against the Bluebirds and led 31-21 at halftime Tuesday.
But Highlands made the necessary adjustments at halftime and came back to record a 57-53 win to advance to the 9th Region Tournament for the first time since 2014. The Bluebirds take on the Newport Wildcats (23-8) on Thursday back at NewCath for the district championship at 7 p.m. Highlands last won at NewCath, 58-44 on Jan. 9, 2010.
"I walked in at halftime. I said, 'We're going to win this game. There's not a single body in here that thinks this game is over so we just got to keep grinding and play the defense," said Kevin Listerman, Highlands Head Coach. "That really was the difference in the second half. It was a matter of us getting stops and kind of finding our rhythm on offense. The best part about this is just the composure of this group. That's having guys who have been around for a long time, recognizing the situation and just being themselves."
Prior to last season, NewCath had won nine straight district tournaments. The Thoroughbreds will not advance to the region tournament for the first time since 2008. Highlands beat NewCath, 60-40 at home in the first round of the district tournament that year before beating Newport and Bellevue on the way to its last district championship that year during the blind draw days.
Listerman especially commended seniors Nate Roberts, Alex Starkey and junior Jacob Brass for their defense in the second half. Starkey had four assists and three rebounds to go with six points. Roberts blocked two shots and recorded a steal with Brass recording two steals and a blocked shot.
"It just helped us get a couple extra possessions," Brass said. "We started to get it going in the fourth quarter playing hard. It's a rivalry game so it's always fun. We knew the other team would play better than it usually does. We just had to respond. In the first half, we didn't play very well. But in the second half, we played better."
For the game, NewCath made 20-of-51 shots for 39 percent including 4-of-12 from three-point range for 33 percent and 9-of-15 free throws for 60 percent. But after going 12-of-22 in the first half for 55 percent, the Thoroughbreds made 8-of-29 in the second half for 28 percent. NewCath tried to dribble to the basket and make things happen, but Highlands contained it better in the second half.
Highlands made 22-of-40 shots for 55 percent including 5-of-14 from three-point range for 36 percent and 8-of-15 free throws for 53 percent. The Bluebirds made 8-of-17 shots for 47 percent in the first half and 14-of-25 in the second half for 56 percent.
The Bluebirds saw their top three scorers lead the way offensively. Sophomore Sam Vinson finished with 18 points making two three-pointers to go with three assists. His lay-up with 5:44 left in the fourth quarter tied the game at 44. Vinson also had a three-point play with 14 seconds left in the third to trim the Thoroughbred margin to 42-39 entering the final period.
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"I wasn't hitting many in the beginning," Leigh said. "I've had a couple games this year where I wasn't hitting early. All my coaches kept telling me, 'Keep shooting, Keep shooting. They'll go in eventually.' At the end, they started going in."
The Thoroughbreds doubled and triple-teamed Highlands senior post Ben Sisson. Sisson still finished with 12 points, nine rebounds, four assists and blocked two shots. Sisson had a monster dunk with 4:20 left in the third quarter.
"When they double-team Teddy (Sisson), it leaves one person open," Vinson said. "Everyone can make plays. When you see the gap, you just take it and take (the ball) to the rack."
Following a time-out and defensive stop, Roberts drove the middle and hit a jumper with 3:29 left to give Highlands a 49-46 advantage. At the other end, junior guard Caleb Jefferson scored two of his team-high 17 points and drew a foul but missed the ensuing free throw leaving Highlands up 49-48 with 1:46 remaining.
NewCath fouled Brass with 1:17 left in the game, but Brass made both free throws to give Highlands a 51-48 advantage leading to a crazy final minute. Two defensive stops led to fast-break lay-ins by Leigh and Starkey to put Highlands up 55-48 with 40 seconds left in the game.
NewCath missed a shot at the other end with 25 seconds left and Sisson grabbed the rebound. But in going after the rebound, some NewCath players appeared to tackle Sisson out of bounds. Both teams received a technical foul on the play. After Highlands made 2-of-4 free throws, NewCath made two before NewCath freshman guard Joel Iles made a three-pointer as time expired to make the final score.
The Thoroughbreds earned 11 more shots by winning the rebound battle, 28-25. Junior forward Evan Mullikin added 16 points for NewCath. Junior guard Eli Howard had just six points for NewCath after scoring 24 points in the 70-61 Highlands win in Fort Thomas during the regular season on Jan. 22.
"We did a much better job of keeping them from getting downhill in the second half and challenging their shots at the rim then cleaning up the rebounds," Listerman said. "It was really a matter of our guys sitting down and defending."
Newport handled fourth-seeded Bellevue, 86-51 in the second semifinal game. The Wildcats edged the Bluebirds, 66-64 in Fort Thomas on Dec. 17 when senior forward Tahj Harding hit two free throws with .4 seconds left.